Reel Dad’s top films based on books about families
“Little Women” becomes the ninth film version of this beloved classic by Louisa May Alcott. Over the years, many favorite novels about families have been adapted for the screen. Here are seven of my favorites.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962): remains one of the most endearing movie adaptations of a classic novel. Director Robert Mulligan does not give the piece a literal translation, page by page, that could inhibit a filmmaker’s creativity; rather he imagines moments the book describes as though they happen for the first time. We feel we are there as a young girl looks to her father to explain what she does not understand about how people think and live.
“Ordinary People” (1980) resonates on film thanks to the careful approach Robert Redford brings to his first effort as a film director. The subtlety of the actor’s work on screen effortlessly translates to his handling of the story’s emotional layers. Rather than letting the drama exaggerate into the extreme, he carefully keeps a lid on the emotional intensity. Redford helps us see that any journey can be filled with ordinary circumstances no matter the houses in which people reside.
“Sense and Sensibility” (1995) tells the story of simple people with basic wants and needs and great capacity to love and care. What’s marvelous about the Dashwoods, however, is how they manage to always find the best in every person, the positive in every situation. Through trial and heartbreak, they never lose their optimistic views even when the world seems to turn against them. And, through them, we can learn a great deal about how timeless that optimism can be.
“Howard’s End” (1992) introduces us to the sisters Schlegel, two strong-willed women who refuse to conform to the conventions of their time, which happens to be turn-of-the-century Britain. When the younger sister defies logic by befriending a helpless young man, her older sibling becomes torn between a sense of obligation and the demands of fairness. The film beautifully captures the ambiguity that novelist E.M. Forrester always brought to the written page.
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1946) captures the warmth of Betty Smith’s novel about a family struggling to make ends meet in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in the early 20th century. While the Nolans may lack the monetary support for life’s many comforts, they rely on a natural resiliency they attribute to their Irish background. First-time director Elia Kazan perfectly translates the atmosphere the book creates without diluting the narrative momentum.
“The Godfather” (1972) dares to question how much someone should be blamed for trying take care of his family. While, on the surface, this may be considered a look at organized crime, it’s really a story about the strength of bonds between family members, people who will, without question, do anything to help the others. And while their approaches may be somewhat unconventional, the feelings they share are, actually, quite common.
“The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) delivers a master class in how to adapt literature to the screen. Director John Ford magically preserves what is essential from author John Steinbeck without letting the film be dictated by the author. Ford tells the story in a visual way, with restraint from letting the characters speak too much, and keeps the action moving at a pace appropriate for film, not for the page. And he brings out such true performances, especially from Henry Fonda.
Yes, moviemakers love movies based on novels. And so do audiences. Enjoy.